Weapons: Exploding Evidence In Iran

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April 7, 2021: More details of the November 2020 killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh have emerged. Mossad, the Israeli external-intelligence agency, planned the operation. Some twenty operatives, including Israelis and Iranians, observed Fakhrizadeh for eight months. At the same time Israel smuggled a RWS (Remote Weapon System) machine-gun into the country. This RWS was modified to operate from a pickup truck or van.

Israel is a major developer and manufacturer for RWS equipment and use them on military vehicles as well as part of their border defense systems on “active” borders like the one covering Gaza. Israel produces three types of RWS; a 75 kg (169 pound) one for 5.56mm and 7.62mm machine-guns, a 160 kg (350 pound) one for 12.7mm and 14.5mm machine-guns, and a 1.5 ton one for 40mm and 20mm autocannon. The border defense ones are mounted in concrete turrets along with high-res day/night vid cams and usually are armed with a 12.7mm machine-gun with an effective range of over 1,000 meters. These RWS are in a platform that is normally inside the turret and only raised into firing position when a potential target is sighted, or for training and testing. These are operated by remote operators in a control center who evaluate the sighting and open fire with warning or lethal shots depending on the nature of the intruders; armed or unarmed and how many and whether they are on foot or in a vehicle.

It is unclear what caliber machine-gun was used against Fakhrizadeh, who was shot dead after the security vehicle ahead of his car was fired on. He was curious as to what was happening, exited his own vehicle was fired on and shot twice, fatally. Apparently, the Iranians did not suspect a concealed vehicle mounted RWS and that vehicle was rigged with explosives that were set off remotely after the attack. There was little left for the Iranians to collect and reassemble. The Israelis may have used a foreign RWS or an Israeli one “sanitized” to hide its origins. None of the Mossad personnel involved were captured and all got away.

RWS mounted sniper rifles have been developed and used, but this attack involved a machine-gun controlled by a skilled operator. One report described the RWS as mounted and concealed on a pickup truck. Another source reported that this was strictly an Israeli operation, with no American involvement.

Fakhrizadeh was a senior Iranian nuclear scientist and veteran IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) general. During decades of IRGC service the 63-year-old Fakhrizadeh also managed to get several advanced scientific degrees, including a doctorate in physics. With that technical training Fakhrizadeh became a key member of the team developing nuclear weapons for Iran. His prominence in the nuclear weapons program was mentioned several times in the half-ton of secret nuclear program documents Israel stole from Iran in 2018. Those documents confirmed the key role Fakhrizadeh played in the nuclear program, something he was sanctioned for by the United States as far back as 2008. He is the fifth key member of the Iranian nuclear weapons effort to be killed since 2010. The loss of Fakhrizadeh is expected to slow Iranian nuclear weapons development and it will take years to find a suitable replacement.

Fakhrizadeh was killed using a less complex but difficult to perfect weapon. The idea of a remote-control machine-gun has been around since the 1940s but years of tinkering, and better technology, eventually resulted in a Norwegian firm (Kongsberg) developing a remote-control gun system that worked effectively, dependably, and affordably. This has made the RWS practical for widespread combat use. While some troops miss the greater feeling of situational awareness (especially being able to hear and smell the surroundings) you got as an old-school turret gunner, most soldiers and marines have adapted and accepted the new system. What it lacks in the smelling and hearing department, it makes up for in terms of night vision and zoom. Most importantly, it's a lot safer. In pre-RWS days turret gunners made up a disproportionate number of combat casualties.

The United States was the first to adopt the Kongsberg Protec RWS for use by troops in Iraq. By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand Protec CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Stations), in U.S. service. By 2012 there were over 8,000 and U.S. ultimately purchased over 16,000 of them. Many of the enemy fighters had seen Western or Japanese films featuring killer robots and often thought that's what they were facing. The fear factor was real and it helped. The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moved to point at a target, was due to something few officers expected: so many troops who quickly become expert RWS operators. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating computer systems (video games) very similar to the CROWS controls. This was important because viewing the world around the vehicle via a vidcam is not as enlightening (although a lot safer) than having your head and chest exposed to the elements and any firepower the enemy sends your way. But experienced video gamers are skilled at whipping that screen view around and picking up any signs of danger. It was soon found that the zoom and night vision capabilities made the RWS operator superior to having someone manually handling the weapon and detection of the enemy.

The Israeli military tended to assign female soldiers to be RWS operators for the border defense RWS turrets. It is unclear if video game experience was a prerequisite but the women proved better at determining if a target required lethal fire or just warning shots to force them back across their side of the border or to halt long enough for Israeli troop to show up and capture the interlopers.

 


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